The Next-Gen Director Dilemma

3 next-gen board directorsNinety percent of directors say diversity of age is important—and for good reason. Younger board members promise essential experience in areas like social media marketing, digital transformation and cybersecurity, not to mention insights on the challenges of recruiting, engaging and retaining upcoming generations of talent. Today’s boards get that. Yet, there are only 315 directors age 50 and under in the S&P 500, according to PwC’s annual corporate directors survey.

Why the disconnect? Inherent inertia is one factor. By nature, board turnover tends to be low, affording few opportunities for refreshment. But talent pool and timing also play a part. Despite enthusiasm for what young directors can bring to the table, boards have struggled to find and generate interest among qualified candidates, many of them mid-career professionals who are also raising young families. The time commitment required can be off-putting, particularly for first-time board members facing a significant learning curve.

Still, change is underway. More than half of current directors age 50 and younger were appointed within the last two years, suggesting boards are actively recruiting for age diversity. What’s more, in many cases boards took proactive measures to bring younger directors into the fold. Among the boards with directors under the age of 50, 62 percent reported that they added a board seat in order to place someone 50 or under on the board, according to PwC’s Governance Insights Center.

Boards are also adapting their onboarding practices, including director development programs, to help young directors get up to speed. CBM editor Dan Bigman recently teamed up with Kerie Kerstetter, who runs NextGen Board Leaders, a community started last year by Boardroom Resources and Spencer Stuart, to talk with three under-50 directors about their experiences and how companies can overcome the obstacles of bringing younger directors aboard. Their conversation, edited for clarity and length, follows:

Corporate Board Member: Many of you are at the height of your careers, and some are also parents with young kids.  What is it about board service that motivated you to add  more to your respective plates at this point in your lives?

Sarah Tomolonius: I’ve actually been following the company I’m involved with for a long time. In fact, the moment I met the person who was CEO at the time, I thought, “I’d love to be on this company’s board.” For me, and I’ve served on a lot of nonprofit boards and continue to, board service is a way of [having] further involvement and integration into what I fundamentally believe.

Priya Huskins: I’m an enthusiastic supporter of capitalism, and capitalism doesn’t work if there aren’t professionals who are willing to step up to a place of responsibility and take fiduciary oversight on behalf of shareholders very seriously. In addition,  for somebody in mid-career, it’s interesting to have a chance to work with other very experienced businesspeople, who bring a wide variety of experiences to the business of continuing to create shareholder value.

Alex Schmelkin: For many of us, running businesses and/or interacting with our own boards, or perhaps selling to boards and negotiating with boards, it offers an opportunity to be on the other side, to see the way boards really operate and meet the people who compose the board. It gives you insights into the way true business operates. Also, some of us didn’t make a conscious decision to pursue board service. In my case, it was somewhat happenstance. Keeping the door open for when this opportunity may present itself is a wonderful way to explore [the other side].

Tomolonius: That’s true. I’ve had conversations with other people in mid-career positions who have no idea how to join a board. They’re substantial in their careers and well positioned, and yet, they can’t figure out the channel to get them positioned correctly to actually join a board. When we’re talking about next generation, it is a bit like the Wizard of Oz. What’s behind that curtain? How do you access it? To me, there don’t seem to be appropriate and apparent channels for credentialed, responsible, smart people who want to be engaged in this way. It’s, “I’m here, the board is there. How do I get there?” So the challenge is trying to get more people like us and to get boards to figure out how to make those connections.